An Examination of Skill pt.19
Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 11:29PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Controller Design, Dynamics, Mechanics, Skill

Perhaps you've experienced this before. One day you come across other gamers that play that game you know and love. Let's call this game Know&Love. Since Know&Love was released you've played it if not every day then surely several times a week. You know this game like the back of your hand. You've beaten every level and played every silly way you could think of. You've played against your friends and/or family and proved that you were the best around. So when you finally sit down to play against these stranger gamers you expected similar results. In the end, not only do you lose, but you lose badly. You couldn't even land a good blow, pop a balloon, get more than a few lucky kills, or knock the opponent off the stage. Thinking back on your beat down on your way home you realize that you don't even know how you got beaten so badly. You realize that your opponents were playing on another level. Know&Love looked and sounded the same, but the way they played was unlike anything you've ever experience.

That's you and your favorite game.

Some have described their favorite competitive multiplayer video games as being quick to learn yet taking years to master. Others pride their game of choice for being deep or intricate. None of these qualities are what give a game the potential to have that next-level of play. Neither are they what make a game a candidate of a healthy tournament scene. In fact, communities are probably the most important factor for a game's tournament popularity and lastability. This is more of Scav's area of expertise. Visit for his thoughts on communities and grass roots gaming. For this article, I'll focus on the design elements and features that turn a simple game into a system that's virtually impossible to a system that can be taken to that next-level.  

Part of the issue lies in our perception. If we don't think a game system is capable of rich interactivity and strategies, then it's that much more surprising when we witness that next-level play. Most likely, the reason we can develop such myopic ideas of how a game can be played or, what's even more brash, how a game should be played is because game design and video game systems are really complicated. Just thinking about how rules and individual features can affect the interactive possibilities  between hundreds of factors in thousands of combinations is beyond most "hardcore" gamers let alone more casual individuals. What most can grasp is the relatively simple concept of the skill ceiling.

It's easy to understand generally where the skill ceiling is in the sport of Basketball. For every missed shot, foul, turn over, or bad pass, just imagine a player not messing up. Shooting 100% is the gaol. Though no player comes close to having stats like this, understanding that it's possible is a way of understanding the skill ceiling. This in turn shapes our perception of the ideal player.

But the reality is, not only does this ideal player not exist, but there's a whole rule book of complexities and additional factors that players have to deal with every game. On a basic level, basketball is all about putting a ball in a hoop. But there are hundreds of rules in place to shape the sport around the somewhat arbitrary concept of "basketball." Though no player is perfect, how a player adapts to their abilities, lack of abilities, and the many rules of the game opens the floor to a much richer concept of an ideal player. In other words, top level basketball players can't and don't expect to shoot 100%. Instead they find ways to use their skills to make the most out of every play. Sometimes this means drawing a foul. Other times it means passing or shooting. 

It's the same with video games. Never missing doesn't quite describe some of the best Halo players. By understanding how video games are made (game design) we can see exactly what features allow pro players to compete on a level beyond the obvious. 

 For the record, next-level of play doesn't necessarily include hidden mechanics or glitches. The way I defined next-level play partially takes into account one's perception of how a game is played based on playing and understanding a game. Any developer can hide mechanics from the player or fail to find powerful glitches. The point is understanding that next-level play is "hidden" right in from out our eyes not because a developer decides to be cryptic, but because we fail to fully understand the emergent complexities of a game system.


From here, we're looking at elements or features of game design that layer together to create interactive gameplay systems. This layering together of a few simple rules and/or properties to create countless possibilities is emergence. Some people use the word to describe game breaking, developer "unintended," "discovered" abilities. While these abilities certainly quality as emergent actions, emergence more accurately refers to every action and possibility a game can create. Only the strictest of old school adventure games and puzzle games don't feature a modicum of emergence (example: Z-Rox). 

The following is a list of individual features or game design layers that increase the potential for next-level play. 


Controller Design
Mechanics Design
Gameplay Dynamics
Real Time & Real Timing
Player States

Value Scale


If you're thinking that most action games have one or more of the above gameplay elements/features to support next-level play, then you're absolutely correct. Even if a game isn't very popular or doesn't have any kind of multiplayer whatsoever, the potential to do crazy advanced things is there as long as it has the above elements. The more elements, the more potential. If you don't believe me, just type in "speed run" with the phrase "tool assisted" along with your favorite video game into youtube and see what happens. If there are any videos, what you see should amaze you. 

In the near future I'll put together posts and videos of next-level play from games that many may underestimate. Once your eyes are open, there's no more living in the dark. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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